For the first time since Jan. 6, 2008, the Buccaneers had a playoff game to play on Saturday night. They were just outside of the nation’s capital at FedEx Field looking to pick up their first postseason victory since Super Bowl XXXVII as they squared off with the Washington Football Team.
Tampa Bay came in at 11-5, riding a four-game winning streak that saw them average 37 points per game. The red-hot offense got some positive news on Saturday morning, too, when it was reported that Mike Evans was expected to play despite hyperextending his knee in last Sunday’s regular season finale against Atlanta. The bad news, however, was that with the game being scheduled for Saturday, the defense would be without Devin White, who would have been eligible to come off the Reserve/COVID-19 List on Sunday. Nonetheless, the Bucs were 8.5-point favorites heading into the game, with ESPN’s FPI giving them a 75.8% chance to advance to the NFC Divisional Round.
Despite its 7-9 record, Washington earned the NFC’s No. 4 seed in the playoffs by winning the NFC East, clinching it with a victory over Philadelphia last Sunday night. Ron Rivera’s team came into Saturday with plenty of questions to answer, with most of them coming on the offensive side of the ball. Soon-to-be Comeback Player of the Year Alex Smith was able to help lead the team this far, but a calf injury landed him on the inactive list for the game. With that, Taylor Heinicke was tasked with starting under center, making his second career start in a playoff game.
No matter whether it was going to be Smith or Heinicke leading the offense, though, the pressure was always going to be on Washington’s stout defense to make this a game, and that’s a challenge that standout rookie Chase Young appeared more than ready for. Tampa Bay talked all week about how the Washington Football Team’s front four was nothing to take lightly, and it was widely known that it would be up to the big men up front to keep Tom Brady upright so that he could get the offense rolling.
The Buccaneer offense had itself a solid night—especially considering the opponent it was facing. But it was Washington’s offense keeping the game close, with Taylor Heinicke playing the game of his life to give the Bucs a big scare. Even when Tampa Bay looked to have pulled away with nine minutes to go, Heinicke led a scoring drive that cut it back to a five-point game. In the end, though, the Buccaneer defense got the stop it needed to seal a 31-23 win that clinched a spot in the next round.
Washington won the coin toss and elected to defer, meaning it was Tampa Bay’s offense with a chance to get things started on the right foot. After Jaydon Mickens returned the opening kick to the 19-yard line, Tom Brady and the offense took the field. An incompletion brought things to 2nd & 10 before Brady hit Mike Evans for a 15-yard gain, and with a facemask penalty added on, the Bucs were at midfield. Leonard Fournette then got the first two carries of the game for Tampa Bay, picking up nine and seven yards to get down to the Washington 35. A 17-yard connection between Brady and Chris Godwin and a seven-yard pickup by Fournette got the Bucs in the red zone, but the drive stalled there. A third-down incompletion led to a 29-yard field goal attempt that Ryan Succop nailed to give the visitors an early 3-0 lead after a nine-play, 70-yard drive.
We get on the board first pic.twitter.com/z4QGbRapez— Tampa Bay Buccaneers (@Buccaneers) January 10, 2021
Bradley Pinion’s kickoff went for a touchback, setting Washington up at its own 25. Tampa Bay’s defense was swarming early, with Shaquil Barrett and Ndamukong Suh dropping Antonio Gibson for a four-yard loss on first down. A second-down drop on a deep ball and a five-yard pass to Terry McLaurin brought up a quick fourth down, leading to the game’s first punt. After a 50-yard punt by Tress Way and a seven-yard return by Mickens, the Bucs set up shop for their second drive at their own 31.
Fournette lost two yards on the first play of Tampa Bay’s next possession, but a 12-yard pass from Brady to Godwin moved the chains and got the ball to the 41. Fournette got six yards on the next play before getting stuffed on second down, bringing up a 3rd & 4. A delay of game pushed things back to a less-manageable 3rd & 9, then an incomplete pass brought Pinion out for a punt. His 44-yarder, with no return, gave Washington possession at its own 14 to start drive No. 2 on the night.
Tampa Bay’s defense got Washington to 3rd & 6 quickly on the next drive, but a 36-yard pass from Taylor Heinicke to Cam Sims moved the chains and got the ball across midfield. Gibson got tackled by Antoine Winfield Jr. for a loss on the next play before the Bucs grabbed momentum back. On 2nd & 11, Kevin Minter tipped Heinicke’s pass at the line, allowing Sean Murphy-Bunting to come through with an interception. That gave the ball back to the Bucs at their own 42 with a chance to add to their lead.
Two straight incomplete passes by Brady brought up a 3rd & 10 quickly on the next drive, but he found Scotty Miller for a 15-yard gain on the next play to keep the drive alive. It was around then that it was announced that Ronald Jones II was questionable to return with a quad injury. Rookie Ke’Shawn Vaughn entered the mix and picked up four and three yards on his first two carries, then Brady found Antonio Brown deep for a 36-yard touchdown. Turning the interception into points gave Tampa Bay a 9-0 lead, as Succop’s PAT attempt was blocked. Nonetheless, with 2:51 to go in the opening quarter, the Bucs were in control.
Heinicke got Washington going to start the next drive, finding Logan Thomas for a 24-yard gain before hitting McLaurin for an 18-yard pickup. He then scrambled for a 10-yard gain two plays later to get the ball down to Tampa Bay’s 21 and, one play later, the first quarter came to an end with the Bucs leading 9-0.
Washington began the second quarter with 2nd & 8 at the Bucs’ 19, and Jordan Whitehead nearly got home for a sack before Heinicke got the ball away to avoid a loss. He hung in the pocket on the next play and delivered a first-down pass to Steven Sims. Three plays later, J.D. McKissic found the end zone to get Washington on the board. Dustin Hopkins delivered on the PAT, getting the home team within 9-7 two minutes into the second quarter.
A squib kick recovered by the Bucs set them up at their own 39, and the offense took advantage of the field position right away. A sweep by Brown picked up 22 yards on first down, getting the ball to Washington’s 39. A run and two receptions by Fournette picked up another first down, then Brady and Godwin linked up for a 27-yard touchdown to answer the Washington score. Looking to chase the lost point from the earlier PAT block, the Bucs went for two, but Fournette stumbled and fell short of the goal line. That kept it at a one-possession game, with Tampa Bay up 15-7.
Heinicke started the next drive with two five-yard passes to Cam Sims—with an incompletion mixed in—to get a first down. Gibson then broke free for his best run of the game, picking up 11 yards to the 46. Washington continued to move the ball from there, getting the ball across midfield before stalling. An incompletion and a one-yard run by Gibson brought up 3rd & 9, which the Football Team failed to convert. Carlton Davis may have gotten to the receiver a beat too early, but no flag was thrown and Washington had to punt.
Starting at their own 13, the Bucs went back to Fournette on the first two plays. A four-yard run and a 22-yard catch got Tampa Bay near midfield, then Brady hit Cameron Brate for a 19-yard gain to the Washington 34. Two plays later, Brady found Brate again for 24 yards to the 7. A short run by Fournette to the 6 then brought up the two-minute warning with the Bucs leading 15-7 and threatening to add on.
After the two-minute warning, Brady missed Godwin and Rob Gronkowski on consecutive plays to bring Succop out for another field goal attempt. He delivered on a 23-yarder, pushing Tampa Bay’s lead to 18-7 with 1:50 to go before halftime.
The FG puts us up 18-7 pic.twitter.com/dJteCXCczk— Tampa Bay Buccaneers (@Buccaneers) January 10, 2021
On the first play of Washington’s next possession, Anthony Nelson got to Heinicke for a sack and knocked the ball loose. It looked like Barrett recovered it, but it wasn’t ruled a fumble on the field and as a result, the review didn’t go in Tampa Bay’s favor. That cost the Bucs a timeout, but it put Washington behind the sticks. A dropped pass set up 3rd & 16, which Heinicke couldn’t convert. That led to another punt, giving the Bucs another chance to add to their lead before halftime.
Tampa Bay couldn’t get much of anything going, with a 13-yard pass to Brown being the only movement on the drive. On 3rd & 10 at the 29, Brady was sacked for the first time on the night by Montez Sweat, forcing a punt. Pinion’s kick rolled to the Washington 10 with 30 seconds to go before halftime. Nothing happened from there, so the Bucs took an 18-7 lead into the locker room.
After a strong return on the kickoff to start the second half, the Washington Football Team went from its own 30-yard line. A 12-yard pass to McLaurin on the second play of the drive got the ball across the 40, then an offsides call on Jason Pierre-Paul got Washington closer to midfield. Then, Heinicke connected with Thomas for a 29-yard gain to Tampa Bay’s 24, putting some pressure on the Buccaneer defense. A couple of three-yard runs brought up a 3rd & 4 at the 18 and on that third-down play, Whitehead dropped an interception. Nonetheless, the Bucs held Washington to a 36-yard field goal attempt. Hopkins delivered, getting the Tampa Bay lead down to 18-10.
Dustin Hopkins' field goal is GOOD!— Washington Football Team (@WashingtonNFL) January 10, 2021
18-10, them | 11:46 | Q3 pic.twitter.com/koo1EGloYs
The Bucs started their first second-half possession at the 25, but they quickly went three-and-out. Fournette picked up three on first down, but back-to-back incompletions led to a punt. To make matters worse, Pinion delivered just a 30-yarder to set Washington up at its own 42, down just eight.
Gibson started Washington’s next drive with a three-yard run before a pass breakup by Pierre-Paul set up 3rd & 7 at the 45. Heinicke scrambled for a first down on the next play, but a holding call brought it back to a 3rd & 17. A short pass on third down led to another punt, which was downed at the Bucs’ 8-yard line, giving Brady a long field to work with.
Tampa Bay’s offense took the field for its next drive without right guard Alex Cappa, who was declared out for the rest of the game with an ankle injury. Veteran Ted Larsen stepped in for him, fresh off of his Dec. 8 signing to the team’s practice squad.
Vaughn got a first-down carry on the next possession and got three yards, then Brady hit Evans for a 13-yard gain two plays later. Vaughn picked up another six on the next play, but a second-down miss by Brady brought up a 3rd & 4. The Bucs converted, with Brate catching a 14-yard pass to the Washington 44. Tampa Bay’s drive came to a sudden halt, though, with Vaughn losing a fumble that Washington recovered.
Tampa Bay’s defense continued to get absolutely rolled over on the next series, with Heinicke going to work. He found Cam Sims for a 19-yard gain before later escaping the pocket for a 13-yard pickup. Gibson then got three yards and had a questionable horse collar tackle added on, getting the ball inside the 15. Three plays later, Heinicke once again escaped pressure and scrambled for an eight-yard touchdown run. The two-point conversion attempt failed, keeping the Bucs in front by a score of 18-16. However, all of the momentum was with the Washington Football Team.
On the first play of what was a monumentally important drive for the Bucs, Godwin dropped yet another pass, his fourth of the game. He caught a seven-yarder on second down to set up 3rd & 3, though, then Brady connected with Brate for a 23-yard gain to Washington’s 45. Fournette got five yards on the next play, then the Bucs got one more play off before the end of the third quarter and it was a good one. Brady hit Evans for a 17-yard gain to the 23, putting the Bucs in a good spot to start the fourth quarter as they were hanging on to just a two-point lead.
Brady found Fournette for an eight-yard gain to open the final quarter, but a Daron Payne sack pushed the Bucs back to a 3rd & 7 at the 20. One incompletion later, and the Bucs had to settle for a field goal. Succop connected on a 38-yarder, pushing Tampa Bay’s lead to 21-16 with 13:32 to go.
Washington started its next series at the 25, down just five with a chance to take its first lead of the game. But the Tampa Bay defense stepped up for a big stop. Rakeem Nunez-Roches pressured Heinicke on first down to force a throw-away before a one-yard pass brought up 3rd & 9. Pierre-Paul got to Heinicke and Whitehead broke up the pass to force a punt, but the worse news for Washington was that Heinicke’s arm was hanging as he came off the field. He headed to the locker room as the Bucs started their next possession.
Tampa Bay went to work on its next drive, hoping to gain some more separation on the scoreboard. Brady and Evans linked up for a 20-yard gain on the first play of the drive, though Evans had to limp off after the play. Fournette then ran up the middle for 17 yards on the next play before Miller picked up eight more yards on a carry to the Washington 32. Two plays later, Evans was back. He caught a 19-yard pass to the 3-yard line. That looked to have set up a touchdown catch by Brate, though he couldn’t quite hang on. No matter, though, as Fournette powered his way in on the next play to give the Bucs some breathing room. Succop’s PAT took it to 28-16 Tampa Bay with 9:11 to play.
Heinicke was back in the game for Washington on its next drive, giving the team some hope. He found Jeremy Sprinkle for an eight-yard gain on the first play and then, two plays later, he hit Cam Sims for a 23-yard gain to the Bucs’ 40. Three more quick passes got the ball down to Tampa Bay’s 28 for a first down and a couple of plays later, McLaurin made a nice catch down to the 11. A couple of incomplete passes later—with the second being a breakup by Lavonte David—Washington faced a 3rd & 10 at the 11 with the clock under five minutes. That didn’t matter, though, as Heinicke found Steven Sims for a touchdown in the back corner of the end zone. With Hopkins’ PAT, the Bucs’ lead was down to just five again with 4:51 to go.
Tampa Bay’s offense took the field needing to put the game away and not lean on its defense, and the drive started at the 23. Fournette picked up two yards on first down, with the Bucs appearing to go conservative right off the bat. Instead, Brady looked deep to Evans on the next play and found him for a 35-yard gain to the Washington 40. Fournette picked up 13 on the next play and stayed in bounds, forcing a timeout by Ron Rivera. He picked up another yard on the next play, forcing timeout No. 2 with 3:46 left. Brady was sacked by Payne again on the next play for a loss of nine, bringing up a 3rd & 18. Washington called its final timeout with 3:40 left, but the Bucs were in a tough spot.
Brady was able to find Godwin underneath for a 16-yard gain on third down to make the field goal more manageable for Succop. He delivered, tucking a 37-yarder inside the left upright to extend Tampa Bay’s lead to 31-23 with 2:49 to go.
Washington started the game’s biggest drive at its own 25, and Heinicke delivered a 16-yard pass to McLaurin right off the bat. A 10-yard pass to Cam Sims followed, getting the ball across midfield well before the two-minute warning. Two incomplete passes later, Washington faced a 3rd & 10 at the Tampa Bay 49 with 2:22 to go. And it was then that Lavonte David—finally playing in the playoffs for the first time in his career—had his moment. He got to Heinicke and dropped him for a sack, setting up a 4th & 21 after the two-minute warning.
After the two-minute warning, Heinicke avoided Pierre-Paul and got a jump ball off, but Carlton Davis was there to knock it away and seal the deal for the Bucs.
Three Tom Brady kneel-downs later, the Buccaneers officially had their first playoff win since 2003.
Quick Notes & Stats
- The Bucs took an 11-point lead into halftime thanks in large part to Tom Brady, who threw for 209 yards and two touchdowns on 12-of-23 passing in the first 30 minutes. Brady finished 22-of-40 for 381 yards and two scores, helping the Bucs clinch their first playoff victory since January of 2003.
- With Ronald Jones II sidelined, Leonard Fournette took the bulk of action for Tampa Bay out of the backfield. He performed extremely admirably, running for 93 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries while catching four passes for 39 yards.
- Mike Evans stepped up huge in his first career playoff game, catching six passes for 119 yards.
- Cameron Brate was key for Tampa Bay as well, catching four passes for 80 yards in the win.
- Despite his uncharacteristic drops, Chris Godwin still caught five passes for 79 yards and a touchdown in his first career postseason game.
- Antonio Brown only had two catches in the game for 49 yards, but one of them was an early 36-yard touchdown grab.
- Chase Young was dealt with by the Tampa Bay offensive line all night long, as he only mustered two quarterback hurries in the game.
- Sean Murphy-Bunting came up with a huge first-quarter interception to set the offense for a drive that got the Bucs out to a 9-0 lead.
- Fittingly, Lavonte David was Tampa Bay’s leading tackler in the game, totaling nine (eight solo) with a late sack helping to seal the ball game.
- Rookie Antoine Winfield Jr. came up with two tackles for loss in his playoff debut.
- Ryan Succop may have had an early extra point blocked, but he delivered a massive performance otherwise. He was 4-of-4 on field goals on the night, helping the Bucs come away with points when drives stalled.
- Taylor Heinicke came through with a heck of a performance for Washington, throwing for 306 yards and a touchdown (with one interception) on 26-of-44 passing while rushing for an additional 46 yards and a touchdown.
- Red zone efficiency was a problem for the Bucs, as they went 1-of-5. That helped Washington stay in the game, as the Football Team was 3-of-4.
- Tampa Bay outgained Washington 507-375.
With their win, the Buccaneers will now await their NFC Divisional Round opponent on Sunday. If the Saints beat the Bears, the Bucs will head to New Orleans next weekend. If Chicago pulls off the upset, Tampa Bay will play host to Los Angeles at Raymond James Stadium.